Art and its role in telling personal, family and collective histories

Serge Attukwei Clottey and GoLokal, My Mother's Wardrobe, performance at Gallery 1957, 6 March 2016, courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957, photo by Nii Odzenma

Serge Attukwei Clottey and GoLokal, My Mother’s Wardrobe, performance at Gallery 1957, 6 March 2016, courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957, photo by Nii Odzenma

On March 6 2016 as Ghana marked 59 years of independence, Gallery 1957, a new gallery with a curatorial focus on contemporary Ghanaian art by the country’s most significant artists celebrated its inaugural exhibition. With over 400 people in attendance, My Mother’s Wardrobe, a new creative work by Serge Attukwei Clottey captured a diverse and equally enchanted audience.

Founded by Marwan Zakhem, the gallery has evolved from over 15 years of private collecting and offers an ideal location for both local audiences and international visitors to discover new artists, and to gain a deeper understanding of the breadth of their practice through curated exhibitions. With an initial curatorial focus on contemporary Ghanaian art, the gallery will present a programme of exhibitions, installations and performances by the region’s most significant artists under the creative direction of Nana Oforiatta Ayim. The artist, Serge Attukwei Clottey, is the founder of Ghana’s GoLokal performance collective and the creator of Afrogallonism, an artistic concept commenting on consumption within modern Africa through the utilisation of yellow gallon containers.

Based in Accra and working internationally, Clottey’s powerful testimony to his mother in the aftermath of her death explores narratives of personal, family and collective histories. In continuation of the artist’s established use of assemblage, he considers the value of material as a tangible experience of loss. His works examine the powerful agency of everyday objects, with particular focus on the significance of personal clothing.

Serge Attukwei Clottey and GoLokal, My Mother's Wardrobe, performance at Gallery 1957, 6 March 2016, courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957 Photo Credit: Nii Odzenma

Serge Attukwei Clottey and GoLokal, My Mother’s Wardrobe, performance at Gallery 1957, 6 March 2016, courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957 Photo Credit: Nii Odzenma

I recently interviewed Nana Oforiatta Ayim, founder of ANO, and Creative Director of Gallery 1957 to gain a better understanding of Clottey’s work, Gallery 1957, the creatives industry and intrinsically the role of art in exploring and reconciling Ghana’s past and present.

Tell us about yourself

I write, make films, and work as a cultural historian, which involves uncovering or creating new narratives, particularly of what is now known of Ghana, and the regions that surround it. I live in Accra, Ghana, where I founded and run the cultural organisation ANO, and where I am the Creative Director of a new art space, Gallery 1957.

Tell us about ANO, (what does it stand for) how did it come about and what inspired its inception?

The name ANO is an aberration of the Akan word εno, which means grandmother. In Akan mythology, an old woman or grandmother is the ancestress of humankind. And even though, at traditional occasions, at festivals and funerals, it is often the men that play the role of elders, it is the old woman they go out to spiritually consult. I liked this notion of the origin of beings being female, of this alternative history to the dominant one in our largely Christian country, which is of the first human being a man. ANO is largely about the uncovering and re-writing and -formulating of alternative, more covert histories to challenge dominant, sometimes reductive ones. –

It is also a suffix in the language Esperanto, which I love for its ideal of a common language, one that would transcend national divisions, and that means belonging. In a global narrative, which has for so long been dominated by one side, and in which our cultural offerings, our philosophies and ways of being, were to some extent denigrated, I very much liked this ethos of belonging, of us all sitting at the same table, as equals, with all right to be there, no one sitting higher or lower than the other, most especially in a world that still differentiates on a spectrum from first to so-called third world countries.

The third meaning for it is as a short form of A.N. Other, a pseudonym for the unknown or anonymous. I remember going to museums in Europe when I was younger, and often seeing very sparse plaques alongside sculptures or masks, giving very little context or meaning to why they were there, where they were taken from, who created them, and from within what greater narrative they came. There was a sense that these objects like so much else that came from the continent of Africa were raw material, objects of inspiration for ‘greater’ artists with greater understanding, consciousness and agency. And so ANO is also about retelling histories on their own terms or at least attempting to, and in this way giving them more rounded truths.

Has ANO changed since its inception? If so, which significant changes have happened?

I first started working with the notion of ANO as a mobile platform in 2002 curating exhibitions at the Liverpool Biennial, organising events at the Royal Festival Hall in London, making films etc. The most significant change has been ANO’s settling into a physical space in Accra, and also expanding into more large-scale encompassing projects, like the Cultural Encyclopaedia.

Serge Attukwei Clottey, Love and Connections, 2016, Plastics, wire and oil Paint, 95 x 89 inches, ©the artist, courtesy Gallery 1957, Accra

Serge Attukwei Clottey, Love and Connections, 2016, Plastics, wire and oil Paint, 95 x 89 inches, ©the artist, courtesy Gallery 1957, Accra
How do you choose the artists who receive residency such as in the case of Serge Clottey?

It all happens quite organically. ANO is not a static institution with fixed paradigms and goals. It has been very porous and open, listening to and seeing what works, what synergies there are with other creatives, and then acting upon them. The residency programme emerged from shared interests and the notion that mutual collaboration could be of benefit.

What gap if any do you see in the art and creative works industry in Ghana?

I feel that whatever gaps there are are being addressed by people’s ingenuity. New institutions are springing up, like Gallery 1957 and the Archiafrika Gallery of Design and Architecture. The government is putting some funding into the arts, even if it could do a lot better. Institutions, like the National Theatre are starting to engage with young artists, like Ibrahim Mahama and Serge Attukwei Clottey, and of course artists keep pushing at their own boundaries. I think it is a very good time creatively in Ghana, and I’m excited to see what emerges over the next few years.

What role do you see art playing in creating a platform for reconciling socio-cultural, economic and political discourse beyond ANO?

I think art provides another way of seeing, of thinking, of understanding. I think it highlights things that might be obvious to everyone around, but that are not being addressed, as well as things that might not be obvious at all. I think that the more attention is paid to it, the deeper our engagement with our environment will be, as well as that with our own selves, and that in itself is the strongest foundation for any discourse or development.

You have been quoted as saying the following profound words on reconciling art and loss with regards to Clottey’s work:

“According to custom in many parts of Ghana, a person’s wardrobe is locked up for a year after their death then released to relatives, often leaving the person’s offspring with little or nothing of the material memory of that person. Textiles and materials in Ghana, and other parts of West Africa — each weft, line or mark — are potent carriers of memory, of communication, and the artist weaves into his sculptures subtle traces of loss, remembering, and of rebirth.”

In your view, does Clottey’s artistic work resonate with most Ghanaians?

I am going to do a series of talks at Gallery 1957 around his works for schools and universities and workers, and I’m very excited about the exchanges that will happen as a result of that. I think Serge’s work is deeply embedded in Ga cosmogony and offers an aesthetic and provocative way of looking at our past and recreating our future, and it is always a spectacle, which in itself excites people’s attention. The challenge now is to get the work and the discourses around it seen by more people than those naturally drawn to art, and I hope to do that with a series of films around Serge and other artists, their work and the deeper themes.

Serge Attukwei Clottey and GoLokal, My Mother's Wardrobe, performance at Gallery 1957, 6 March 2016, courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957, photo by Nii Odzenma

Serge Attukwei Clottey and GoLokal, My Mother’s Wardrobe, performance at Gallery 1957, 6 March 2016, courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957, photo by Nii Odzenma
My Mother’s Wardrobe is a result of Clottey’s residency with ANO, whose remit is to uncover hidden and alternative, personal and collective histories, which make up what is now known as Ghana. Can you tell us about other projects you are working on and what to expect in 2016?

There will be a lot of projects in 2016! Another collaboration with Serge on the Korle Lagoon around the themes of nature and its invasion and the mythologies around this within Ga philosophy, as well as a book and film on his work. A collaboration with Zohra Opoku for Gallery 1957, as well as a book and film on her produced by ANO. And an exhibition with Serge, Zohra, and Ibrahim Mahama at the end of the year at LACMA in Los Angeles, for ANO’s Cultural Encyclopaedia project. There will also be a preliminary tour of the country with what I call Living History Hubs, mobile museums, to gather and exhibit material cultural and upload it onto the Cultural Encyclopaedia site. And finally, an exhibition at Gallery 1957 with young artist and performer, Elisabeth Efua Sutherland which resonates deeply with ANO’s remit, as its subject is the role of the feminine in myth-making.

What advice would you give to upcoming artists in Ghana?

To listen deeply to whatever it is that resonates with them the most and to follow that impulse. To look around and see what inspires and challenges them in their environment, as well as outside of it. And to keep working at it, despite all the obstacles, and even without initial support; to create and express even if it is on their street corners or in their family compounds or in a market place, and to keep delving. I feel like it is consistency and integrity of purpose, as well as clarity of expression that draws support, in whatever form, to itself.

Lastly, why is this exhibition a must see for all?

The exhibition is a must see, because Serge is a very talented artist at the full potency of his creative expression. He is experimenting with form and he is delving into the various layers of his environment and bringing them forth in ways that are unexpected and that enchant and expand. The exhibition is a testament to ingenuity, to diligence, to just what is possible, and because of that I think acts a source of inspiration.

 

This article first appeared in my blog post @ Africa at LSE .

Moving from early Pan-Africanism towards an African Renaissance

Like the famous mythical Sankofa bird symbol, Africans must look into their past to create their future; acknowledging our previous mistakes and learning from them but also celebrating our successes and building on them.

A focus on African Renaissance gives an opportunity to reflect on Africa’s self-reliance trajectory and the need to demystify, appropriate and popularize our history, our shared values, and our narrative about the state of Africa today, in honor of the generations that went before us and to inspire current and future generations.

Pan-Africanism at its inception was more than just a search for racial or geographic identity. Initially led and popularized by Africans in the Diaspora such as Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois, it was a clear rejection of the laughable fallacy that Africans did not have a history. It was also a strong refutation of the mindset that defined Africa and Africans from the perspective of the historical experience of slavery, colonialism and racial discrimination.  Rather it was the affirmation of the rich cultural heritage of African societies and the importance of achieving freedom and continental unity.

Since then the concept of Pan-Africanism has continued to evolve, measured by the challenges and aspirations of the African continent. During the independence period, this ideology enabled Africans to overcome domination and oppression by ending colonialism and apartheid in the continent. The possibility of rapid socio-economic transformation of the continent was another goal promoted from early days. As noted by Emperor Hailé Selassié during the launch of the OAU, “Unless the political liberty for which Africans have for long struggled is complemented and bolstered by a corresponding economic and social growth, the breath of life which sustains our freedom may flicker out.” This statement still rings true. [1]

Despite strong political mobilization for the liberation from oppression, Africa has failed to fulfill its full potential. It is well known that in the early 1960s, at the time of the establishment of the OAU, there was high optimism that the continent will perform well. Several African countries were at par or had even higher GDP rates than their counterparts in Asia. It is now common place to mention that, the GDP per capita of Ghana and South Korea were at the same level in 1960. Up until 1975, the fastest growing developing country in the world was Gabon. Botswana’s growth rate exceeded that of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Thailand. Despite the optimism of the time, Africa failed to complete the transformation journey which Asia has to a large degree now traversed. While East Asia’s share in world global exports grew from 2.25 % to 17.8% over a period of 40 years (1970 to 2010), Africa’s share in world global exports drastically reduced from 4.99% to the current 3.33%. This led to Africa being called the ‘hopeless continent’, ‘a scar on the conscience of humanity’ and many other Hegelian fallacies.

As we entered the 21st century, Pan-Africanism reflected Africa’s conscious need for not only political independence, regional integration and the improvements of its living standards, but also the throwing of the shackles of economic bondage and democratic stagnation that had seen it reverse the short lived prosperity of the independence era. This meant devising a new economic positioning and new forms of partnership in which Africa, as an equal partner, would negotiate with the rest of the world, with fierce defense of its own defined priorities.  Without losing the key elements of unity, cultural heritage and freedom, the reinterpretation of Pan-Africanism in the form of an African Renaissance is very relevant. It is a new phase that requires popular participation and mobilization of the African people behind the goals of structural transformation and improved governance.  Indeed, Africa’s Renaissance can only be complete when the African voice will be heard and taken into account.

The relevance of the Pan-Africanism ideal, and its continuous attraction to intellectuals both on the continent and in the Diaspora, will be measured by the ability to adjust to new demands and new generations. Indeed, the ability to continue to provide inspiration and conviction to Africans across ages is the trade mark of Pan-Africanism. Thankfully, things have changed for the better since the turn of the century. Six out of the ten fastest growing economies are in Africa, there is a marked reduction in the number and size of conflicts in the continent, democratic governance and the respect of human dignity are on the rise. Africa is therefore ripe for change. It must seize this moment for re-strategizing.

The AU’s proclaimed vision is for ‘an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena’. Laudable in its aspirations, what guarantees do we have that it will not remain rhetoric? We must ask ourselves how we reach these goals.Agenda 2063 identifies the prerequisites for Africa’s sustained transformation in clear and unambiguous terms and offers a reinterpretation of the continent’s trajectory and claim the 21st century as Africa’s!

What might draw Africa back from achieving its objectives?

In pursuing any bold transformation, there are a few risks that must be appreciated and tackled head on. Current challenges facing any developing countries are very different from past two decades. These include addressing borderless problems such as the impact of climate change, creating jobs while building an educated and innovative workforce, tackling the scourge of disease, famine and conflicts, as well as ensuring that Africa’s vast natural resource wealth benefits its people. Economic inequality, expanding opportunities for all, reducing illiteracy and creating the enabling conditions for the growth development and protection of nascent local industries are just a few examples of a myriad of tasks that will certainly continue to drag Africa down in the world scales.

Towards an African Renaissance.

One thing is sure; Africa must act very differently, if it is going to take advantage of the current momentum. African leaders need a paradigm shift in their thinking. This transformation has already begun and it shows itself in diverse ways. For example, the perceptible change in the orientation of current African leaders from a dependence on external aid and external actors to an Afro-centric and internal support system.In an interview he granted in 1993, Issa Diallo questioned the rationale behind Africans expecting foreigners to build their countries for them[2]. An aid dependence mentality is slowly giving a space to a more assertive leadership.

Starting from the original OAU Charter, there already existed a myriad of resolutions, treaties, accords and inter-governmental agreements to sustain Africa’s ambitions. What is needed now is for African leaders to move their agenda forward. The advantages of regional integration were recognised by Africans through the Pan-African ideology long before others and even longer before the term ‘globalisation’ was coined. The OAU’s creation simply reflected this awareness. The benefits of regional cooperation – increased investment, sustainability, consolidation of economic and political reforms, increased global competitiveness, prevention of conflict- are accepted, but sometimes just that: accepted.

If Africa is going to own its narrative, it has to preserve its policy space and try out its own development approaches. Renaissance means ‘revival’ or ‘rebirth’ and in the context of its usage now, not only offers an opportunity to awaken the spirit of Africa in the 21st century, but also a rallying call to rid the continent of poverty, instability, corruption and neglect. This new mindset means the need to rethink the traditional models of growth and development. In conclusion, the spirit of African unity is alive. It still lives amongst Africans. As Patrice Lumumba said so long ago, ‘The day will come when History will speak… Africa will write its own history… It will be a history of glory and dignity. Long live Africa!![3]

[1] ECA, AU. 2013. Celebrating success: Africa’s voice over 50 Years 1963-2013. Speech of Emperor Haile Selassie during the inauguration of the OAU in 1963
[2] Interview with Issa Diallo in ‘The Courier’ Jan 1992. http://collections.infocollections.org/ukedu/uk/d/Jec131e/1.1.html
[3] Patrice Lumumba, 1961. Letter from Thysville Prison to Mrs. Lumumba.http://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/lumumba/1961/xx/letter.htm

By Carlos Lopes, Executive Secretary Economic Commission for Africa

Article Cross Posted from the Executive Secretary’s Blog

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